COVID-19 Lessons Learned: Do’s and Don’ts of Mobile Messaging During a Crisis

Effective citizen communications are important all the time. But throw in a pandemic and whole new levels of necessity and complication emerges. Municipal governments have been navigating this unprecedented challenge over the last few weeks as best anyone can. Though there’s still plenty to do, there have been best practices that have emerged thus far. In a world turned on its head, how do you convey critical information to citizens?

As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve and cities start thinking about how to reopen, here are some do’s and don’ts for using messaging center tools to effectively communicate with your residents.

Do: Communicate Important Info Regularly

When you have information that your city needs to hear,
share it! Maintain a regular cadence of updates, employing mobile push notifications
for the most important messages.

If your city does not have one already, develop a communication plan. This crisis and emergency risk communication eBook from the CDC is a great place to start.

For each piece of information you need to message out on mobile in a sustained crisis, you could consider the following:

  1. This information is not important and not time-sensitive
  2. This information is important for some groups, but not time-sensitive
  3. This information is important for some groups and is time-sensitive
  4. This information is important for most residents and is time-sensitive
  5. This information is critical for residents and is urgent

Information that ranks with a 1 or 2 on the scale should be
made available in a place where those impacted will easily find it, like on
your website or mobile app. Messages that fit into a 3 or 4 should be shared
with the correct audiences in a timely manner. A message ranked 5 is an
emergency – think severe weather alerts, Amber alerts, etc.

This scale can be used in a non-crisis situation. But during quarantine, you may be using your 3s, 4s, and 5s a lot more than normal. Carefully consider how you can group messages into digestible updates for citizens where appropriate. Establishing a regular cadence of communication (perhaps weekly or biweekly, depending on how severely COVID-19 has impacted your area) during this confusing time builds confidence with citizens that your agency is not only listening, but taking action.

Do: Rely on Digital Channels for Accessibility

Coronavirus has made some forms of communicating with citizens ineffective. Citizens cannot stop by city hall. Representatives and employees are not out and about in the community, and those that are follow social distancing protocols. Phone lines are crammed with people scrambling to get their questions answered.


The City of Dublin, OH's GoDublin mobile app offers Coronavirus information on its home screen.

Digital channels are a first-stop for answers for citizens.
Most cities are doing a great job of highlighting important COVID-19
information from the homepage of their website. Make sure that content is
completely accessible on all devices, including desktops, smartphones, and
tablets.

If you have multiple digital channels, including mobile apps, social media channels, or podcasts, make sure they are all point to the latest information. Cities like Dublin, OH are doing a great job of optimizing digital messaging across channels – don’t be afraid to learn from others! Put yourselves in your citizens’ shoes – the number one reason they are coming to you right now is to find out the latest information and how it impacts their lives.

Do: Follow Push Messaging Best Practices

For the most urgent updates, pushing a message out to
citizens will be necessary. Whether via email, mobile app notification, or
other method, follow best practices! These are exceptional times, but regular
digital communication rules still apply.

  • Be clear and effective in messaging. Convey important points briefly and clearly in the notification’s short format. Provide links to more information if necessary.
  • Be timely. Share messages when they will be most relevant to your citizens.
  • Respect the recipient’s time. Push the most important messages only. Keep pushes concise.  Otherwise, stick to established cadences.
  • Send at an optimal time. Data from mobile intelligence firm Localytics shows engagement is about the same each day of the week, but time of day does matter. Messages sent between 10AM and 1PM drive the highest engagement.

Do: Create a Channel for Those who Want More

So the most important messages are coming out smoothly. But
some residents want more! Create a channel for daily updates for those who want
the most frequent flow of information.

If you work with Rock Solid, creating channels is easy. Reach out to our customer service team and they can help you create channels based on subscription lists, location, or even geofence.

Don’t: Spam Citizens With Information Overload

There’s a lot to share right now, and people are asking for it. But there is such a thing as too much communication.

Be respectful of your citizens, and use the importance
scale. Consider every message center push carefully. Is a pushed notification
on mobile or email the best vehicle for conveying this information?

In addition, boil down pushed messages to be as clear and
concise as possible. Get to the point – leave the extra details, data points,
and reasoning in another medium. There’s a lot that goes into every decision in
these times and that information should absolutely be made available, but too
much detail can dilute the main message and confuse your citizens.

For example, an alert about a change to your city’s
shelter-in-place orders should include the new start and end dates in the
notification itself and a link to more information on your website. That link
can include video recordings from city leadership about the update, information
about essential businesses, and your area’s medical statistics. That way,
everyone knows exactly what they need to do right away, and have access to more
details with just a click.

Don’t: Forget Your Manners

Even with so much critical information to communicate, local
governments need to maintain basic communication etiquette. Citizens won’t
remember the exact messages shared, but they will remember how they were
treated in a time of crisis.

  • Don’t use complicated language. There are a lot of new terms floating around right now, like “shelter in place” and “social distancing.” Ensure new terms are defined clearly.
  • Don’t be rude or cold. A little empathy can go a long way, especially right now. “Brief” doesn’t have to mean cold.
  • Avoid typing in all caps. That’s yelling! There may be a time and place in the most urgent messages for capitalization, but save that for emergencies.  

Don’t: Neglect Your Internal Systems

In a rush to communicate, it’s easy to forget internal
processes and systems. But don’t! You’ll add efficiency and improve your
ability to communicate if you use the resources you already have.

Add COVID-19 report types into the front and back ends of
your service request portal. The most popular new report types amongst our
customers include:

  • COVID-19 business violations
  • COVID-19 restaurant violations
  • Social distancing violations

This not only makes it easy for citizens to report the most
common issues quickly, but can help your organization route requests to the
right departments quickly. Make sure you set up automation rules within your
platform to make this happen!

You can also use these request types to analyze data and inform appropriate action. If you’re receiving a lot of social distancing violations at a specific park in your city, for example, you might consider adding signage, parking barriers, or additional enforcement resources to the area.

Crisis Communications for Governments Have Gone Digital

One of the biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 scramble is that communication with today’s global citizens requires digital messaging. Residents are relying heavily on their local governments for information, so make sure you can connect remotely on the devices they want to use. Digital mediums like websites and smartphone apps are the new hubs of information and communication, so make sure your city’s digital resources can handle messaging standards.

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